Stuff we got wrong in the ’90s: Ebonics

One thing that has always baffled me, as a journalist and as a person, is how America decides what to freak out about.

It’s a big country: Weird and wild and ridiculous things happen all the time. But every year we choose 10 or 15 of them, we put them on our front pages and we lose our minds debating them. Sometimes it’s a dead gorilla, sometimes it’s missing white ladies, sometimes it’s a dress code on airplanes. By the time we circle back to the facts behind them, we’re surprised to find that they no longer match the opinions we’ve formed.

The first of these flare-ups I can remember is the “Ebonics” controversy of 1996. I was 14 at the time, just starting to notice things like late-night monologues and the op-ed page of my local paper. Suddenly both of them were filled with the story of this school district that had decided to teach African-American Vernacular English—”Ebonics” is what the linguists called it; “black slang” is what the columnists called it—as a foreign language. Teachers in Oakland, heads in little boxes on CNN told me, would be teaching “we be happy” as a perfectly acceptable alternative to “we are happy.”

The Oakland School Board’s decision was almost perfectly designed to transcend its circumstances and become a metaphor for How We Race Now. Within days, editorial boards across the country denounced the decision. Within weeks it was condemned by the Clinton administration. Within months it was investigated by Congress.

As usual, the first thing to disappear underneath all the outrage was the event that precipitated it. Nearly everything we heard about the Oakland School Board’s decision in 1996 was wrong. And even worse than how we talked about it then is how we remember it now.

Here, finally, is what really happened:

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Stuff we got wrong in the ’90s: Ebonics

  1. Thanks, Michael! I remember all that commotion, and as a person who was noticing in third grade the differences between “correct” and “incorrect” English, I certainly bought in to the public outcry. I wish I had understood what was going on. Thanks for setting the helpful perspective and background.

  2. I do remember this, a strange flash-point. We be stressin’ over weird shit at times…

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